Flying Saucer offers food so dazzling and artful it almost makes you dizzy

I've been trying to get into the Flying Saucer for years. Either I call too late to make a reservation (“All we have two Wednesdays from now is 5:30”) or I try to walk in at prime time on a night when everybody else in the city has the same idea.

So it was a happy surprise when I actually booked a table for four on a Tuesday night only a week in advance. And, strangely enough, the back dining room was only half full when we were seated. Either lots of people called to cancel or Tuesday night's the way to go.

Unfortunately, our neighboring table was occupied by a seemingly coked-out woman in a backless dress who spent her meal railing loudly at her dinner companion, finally sending him off into the night with his theater ticket. She then tried in vain for the next half-hour to pawn off her ticket, making demands of the waiter and inserting herself into our conversation. Sort of got the evening off to a surreal start, although one of our foursome found it exciting, remarking that everyone is so well behaved these days it was a relief to see someone acting out in public.

Actually, there's a lot about the Flying Saucer that is surreal. The atmosphere is eclectic, even funky: '60s rock posters and space ships; ceiling fans; bad cheesy art and gilt-edged mirrors; a nude, gold-painted mannequin reclining on a ledge over the room. And the crowd is just as diverse, lefty-looking Birkenstockers fork to fork with investment bankers and socialites slumming in the Mission.

At the center of this mosaic of stuff and people, there shines food that is so inspired, so artfully executed, so dazzling in every conceivable way it almost makes you dizzy. It's the culinary equivalent of hearing the New York Philharmonic in a high school gymnasium.

Time out. Before I dive into the specifics, let me say that even if you're lucky enough to get a walk-in table, you should by no means go to the Flying Saucer on the spur of the moment. Make it an event. Prepare yourself. Don't eat a big lunch, don't have a couple of drinks before dinner. If you really want to appreciate the experience to the fullest, you should have a clean palate and a clear head.

And don't be in a hurry. It takes a while to get your food. But once you see owner/chef Albert Tordjman's extravagant compositions, you'll understand why. The man is an artist and a perfectionist. And he has put the fear of God into his waiters. At one point during our meal, as the birthday boy was indecisively mulling his after-dinner sherry selection, Albert sounded a huge gong in the kitchen. “Gotta go,” our waiter said, darting across the floor to pick up the ready and waiting dish and deliver it before coming back to take the order.

For our appetizers we chose an artichoke lobster Tian salad ($9), “Some big place” fried oysters ($8) and cold smoked foie gras en torchon ($12). The first, a cylinder of lobster and cucumber, was topped with mango and tiny red caviar and surrounded by a quartered artichoke heart. The presentation was stunning, the richness of the lobster paired beautifully with the crunchy cucumber and sweet, tangy mango.

The oysters (from Alaska, we learned) were plump and juicy in a light batter and served with a ginger/chile/lemon dipping sauce. The foie gras came sandwiched between oversize homemade potato chips, resting on a potato scallion blini with cassis-huckleberry coulis. Everyone but me got orgasmic: When I commit the over-indulgence of foie gras, I prefer it straight.

Also on the appetizer menu are Roquefort and spring greens ($7), chilled shellfish consomme ($8) and raw red tuna ($9).

We managed to select four different entrees, with only a little bit of grumbling from two who both wanted the duck confit. Blackened steak ($23) was a New York cut, rare as ordered but slightly fatty, and served in a roasted shallot shiitake wine sauce with sweet potato/parsnip mash and a smoked tomato onion timbale. Tender grilled pork tournedos ($18) were the big hit of the evening. They were served with banana and black-bean chile empanadas, braised mustard greens and corn tomatillo relish.

The fire-grilled Pacific salmon ($19) was charred on the outside, moist within and accompanied by potatoes anna, fennel and black mustard-seed salad and yellow-tomato curry coulis. Grilled duck confit ($18) with corn-fennel flan and sauteed leeks and spinach, we all agreed, was the least successful dish, lacking the intensity of a confit and tasting more like roast duck.

In each case the presentation was outstanding: radish and daikon flowers; wrapped greens looking like a giant maki roll; a rattan-like potato casing for the potato parsnip mash. And while I've said before that I'm not generally a big fan of decorative food and helixes of swirled sauces, when it's done this beautifully and tastes so sensational, you'd have to be a philistine to quibble.

Another plus: We've all experienced the artsy-food, smidgen-of-this, dab-of-that, tiny-portion syndrome. Not the case at the Flying Saucer: You're abundantly fed. And, unlike many glitzier downtown places, the Flying Saucer pays as much attention to vegetables and other side dishes as to the main attractions.

Other entrees include pan-seared, herb-crusted chicken ($18), sauteed mahi mahi ($19) and smoked lamb chops ($24).

On to desserts (all $6). By this point we were on sensory overload, running out of oohs and ahs. We were revived by tropical madness, a brittle coconut tower filled with mango and kiwi and served with guava ice cream and a passion fruit white-chocolate mousse. In spite of its excessiveness, we loved it. The concorde — a chocolate mousse/chocolate meringue/chocolate crust creation with blackberry sauce — was intense, tasting of the highest quality chocolate. A truly decadent evening could be made of the foie gras and concorde with a bottle of champagne.

Speaking of champagne, we brought our own and paid a $15 corkage, which seemed a bit steep ($12 for still wine). So I checked around and found that $10 is generally the going rate. Bringing your own wine is something lots of people shy away from, feeling it's chintzy or low rent. But when it's a special occasion — in this case the champagne was a birthday present — and I'm going to spend a bundle on the food anyway, I have no problem with it. It's a good idea, however, to call ahead and ask about corkage policy.

The wine list is largely French and Californian, and there's a nice selection of after-dinner ports and sherrys.

One last thing. There's lots of flavor-of-the-month mania on the restaurant scene with fickle foodies flocking to the newest, the latest, the place with celebrity cachet. I've not met Albert Tordjman, but when you find a place so clearly guided by a consistent creative spirit such as his, it's quite remarkable.

Flying Saucer, 1000 Guerrero, S.F., 641-9955. Open Tues-Sat 5:30-10 pm, Sun 6-9:30 pm.

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